Free consultations are not free. They cost you time. And energy. Most importantly, they cost you INVENTORY. When you sell creative ideas and strategies, your “advice” is INVENTORY.
Imagine that you own a shoe store. How long would you last if you gave every person who walked through the door – or said they might walk through the door – a free pair of shoes?!?
I’m not saying you should never do free consultations. Whether you like it or not, selling your services sometimes requires a sample of what you can do.
But that’s what free consultations should be… SAMPLES. Tiny morsels that highlight how delicious it would be to work with you.
When To Do Free Consultations
When you truly believe there is business potential, it is reasonable to set up a conversation. In this scenario, you are “getting” as much as you are “giving”.
Speaking with a decision-maker helps you learn about their needs and wants. It can build trust and set the tone for a positive, productive working relationship.
When NOT To Do Free Consultations
I love coffee as much as the next guy, but I avoid “coffee dates” like the plague. In fact, I run away from any proposed meeting that includes phrases like:
- “Let’s grab a coffee…”
- “I want to pick your brain…”
- “I want to run something by you…”
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t offer your expertise to help a friend (or even a friend-of-a-friend). But you need to recognize that you will likely be “giving” without “getting”.
8 Rules To Turn Free Consulations Into Paying Clients
I have been in business for a very long time and I have a strong reputation in my field. That said, I can honestly say that I have never had someone call or email, begging to do business with me.
I have met new leads at business events where I am speaking or networking. I have had existing clients refer me to potential new clients. And I have had folks find me online.
But, regardless of how the introduction occurs, at some point it falls on me to “sell” my expertise. Free consultations can be a good way to do this.
Rule #1: Pre-Qualify The Lead
You should have a good understanding of what your ideal customer looks like.
Before committing to the meeting, do some research. Check out their website and social media. Make sure there are possible connections between your services and their needs.
And make sure both you and the person you are meeting with see those connections!
When booking free consultations, ask:
- “What is the main reason that you want to meet with me?”
This is the best pre-qualifying question EVER. It challenges the person to provide a concrete purpose for the upcoming conversation.
And you can refer to their answer during the meeting, as a touchstone to keep the conversation on track.
Rule #2: Only Consult With Decision-Makers
As part of pre-qualifying the lead, view the LinkedIn profile of the person requesting the meeting. Take a look at their job title to make sure they are in a position of influence. If they aren’t, do a little more research.
Find out who the real decision-maker is, then ask (politely) to include them in the conversation.
Rule #3: Set Time Limits
Free consultations should have a set start time AND a set finish time. Limiting the meeting time helps keep people on topic. It also reduces the risk of meeting fatigue, which can happen when things drag on too long.
You should clearly state the time limit on all communications. And politely mention it at the beginning of the meeting. For example:
- “I’m looking forward to spending an hour learning more about…”
- “I know we only have 30 minutes, so let’s jump right in…”
Don’t obsess about the clock because people HATE that. But be conscious of time and steer the conversation back to the main topic if necessary.
Rule #4: Limit Free Consultations To The Phone
Face-to-face meetings are a great way to build trust and develop rapport. But they also take more time, cost more money, and are more apt to veer off topic.
For the most part, free consultations should done by phone. Once your prospect has become a client, then it makes sense to invest in the relationship.
But that first conversation doesn’t need to involve buying someone coffee and a bagel. Or spending half your day fighting traffic and finding parking!
Rule #5: Don’t Give Away The House
Providing valuable insights to a potential client shows that you know what you’re talking about. But giving too much free advice can be a problem.
They may wind up believing they know so much that they no longer need your help.
Focus on “strategy” instead of “tactics”. And ask lots of questions. This helps you learn more about their needs.
AND it prevents you from rambling on – and giving away too much!
The goal of a free consultation is to get someone to say ‘yes’ to working with you. That’s it. So pull in the reins on how much advice you give.
Rule #6: Have An Escape Plan
Free consultations – like everything else in business – can go wrong. Sometimes, no matter how well you pre-screen, you end up in a conversation that is going nowhere.
If you realize this in the first 10 minutes, don’t waste 50 more minutes of your time (and theirs). Instead, activate an escape plan that matches the situation.
If your services don’t match up with their needs, refer them to someone else, then end the call.
If they are just “picking your brain”, cut to the chase. Say something like:
- “This is the kind of advice people pay me for. I would love to work with you and help _______________ (insert problem you will solve or goal you will reach). Can you see yourself hiring my firm?”
Trust me… If someone is just fishing for free advice, the money question will send them packing.
Rule #7: End With A Clear Ask
The purpose of free consultations is to get PAID work. So don’t let things end without asking for their business!
This advice may seem obvious, but it has been my experience that many of us struggle with “the close”.
I get it… It can feel uncomfortable. But you don’t get what you don’t ask for!
I find it helpful to write a few closing lines on paper and have it in front of me during free consultations. (This is another reason I prefer phone calls over face-to-face).
If you’re looking for some good closing lines, I recommend reading Hubspot’s 19 Closing Phrases to Seal a Sales Deal.
Rule #8: No Free Follow-Ups
Free consultations should never end with you holding a to-do list. Yet this is an all-too-common happening.
If you wind up setting a date to “follow up” and give them more information about something, you have a problem…
You are now officially working for free!
The free follow-up is a direct result of your failure to seal the deal. Rather than ask for their business, you chose to continue proving your worth.
FYI: Business relationships seldom evolve organically. To get from “free” to “paid” you need to close the deal.
Go back and re-read Rule #7!
Free Consultations: The Big Conclusion
The purpose of free consultations is to get new clients. Period.
It’s not about “helping people out” or proving how smart you are. So don’t set up meetings unless you can see genuine business potential.
Be polite but professional. And provide insights but not fully fleshed-out solutions.